Who Will Keep the Memories, 2023, by Debra Eubanks Riffe

Have you ever wandered through a museum and seen a piece of art that mesmerizes you? That stuns you and leaves you wishing you could ask the creator ten thousand questions? This happened to me recently at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in Montgomery, Alabama.

Visiting the museum was on my 25th Cancerversary to-do list but I ran out of time and couldn’t make it happen. When I unexpectedly found myself with a few hours to spend in Montgomery, I made a beeline to the museum. I was directed to “Alabama A to Z”, the museum’s 45th annual exhibition featuring Alabama artists. I entered the exhibit and was immediately greeted with a biography of Debra Eubanks Riffe and her show “Who Will Keep The Memories.” This is how it all began.

spring, 2019, by Debra Eubanks Riffe

I wandered through her block-pieces and paused in front of her creation “spring, 2019” even though it was a raging summer in July. A yellow bird takes flight from green foliage and soars against a blue sky. It’s fun and hopeful and really made me think of a cool spring day. However, when I arrived in front of “give light, so that others might see, 2016.” I was struck and stuck. 

give light so that others might see, 2016, by Debra Eubanks Riffe

This piece has a dark background and a half-lit profile of a gentleman holding a lamp. It grasped me and wouldn’t release me. Apologies to the other museum guests who wanted a closer look because I stood frozen in front of it. I was captivated by the darkness of the background, the shadows on the lamp-man’s face, the yellow lights cast by the lamp, and the sprinkle of white fairy lights throughout.

I was fascinated by his arm and how even though the light was in front of him, it was lit from behind. I looked closely at the detail of his shirt sleeve and wondered if there were people camouflaged within the darkness waiting for the light to reach them. This was my greatest question: were there others waiting on the light? I wished I could ask this of Ms. Riffe. I stepped back to catch my breath but stepped back into its aura. And then fate intervened.

A woman, dressed in black with her dreads swinging, walked purposefully into the gallery and asked me if I liked the art. I told her I was mesmerized by “give light, so that others might see” and she introduced herself as the artist. 

Debra Eubanks Riffe’s biography

It was KISMET!! Do you know how many micro events had to happen in order for us to be in the same space at the same time? My sister-in-law and I left Birmingham early that morning headed to Montgomery. I dropped her off and hung out with a friend until she (lovingly) kicked me out of her house. Then I drove to the museum and asked the right questions to get to the right exhibit.

Debra said she had gotten stuck on I65 and was two hours late arriving at the museum. She taught a class there and was exiting the museum when she decided to take a turn through the gallery. Then she approached me, identified herself, and listened to my admiration. 

There were endless choices the Universe made on my behalf so I could meet Debra, and I’m so glad I did. I think of the traffic lights that changed for me at the right time, and the traffic that stalled her. I stopped on I65 to pick up breakfast. Then visited with my friend, and stayed later than I expected. I chatted with a museum staff member before entering the gallery. So many seemingly random decisions that conspired to bring us together.

I asked Debra about the light falling around the sleeve of the subject with the possible hidden figures and she said she didn’t create people in the light but she found my interpretation interesting. She told me a bit about her Southern background (she’s just a girl from Mississippi) and her plan for her next big piece. She has pieces in several Alabama museums, including the Birmingham Museum of Art, the National Historic Landmark 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery. I plan to see as much of her work as possible.

After our chat, we walked throughout the gallery and she pointed out “st. clair, 2019”, a piece that was close to her heart. Debra was inspired to create it after working with imprisoned men at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Al. It’s another powerful piece that deserves time and attention.

st. clair, 2019, by Debra Eubanks Riffe

The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is located at 1 Museum Drive, Montgomery, AL 36117 and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:AM to 5:PM. “Who Will Keep the Memories” and “Alabama A to Z”  exhibits through September 24, 2023. Make sure you visit before the shows leave MMFA.

Have you seen the work of Debra Eubanks Riffe? What was your favorite piece?